The Hound(s) of the Baskervilles

Greenwich Theatre, The Duchess Theatre

Aaaarrrrooooooo!! Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, eh. They’re just like Omnibuses. You wait ages then two come along at once…

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Greenwich Theatre, SE10

Greenwich Theatre only hosts its own professional productions once a year – the panto. The rest of the year it’s a touring house which means that it’s only as good as the shows that visit it. Sometimes they’re a misfire, but more often than not they’re very good indeed.

This is a stylish production. Gauze flats which, if you sit in the centre of the auditorium look as though they are an open book (not sure whether they’d work so well from the side) serve as a screen for back-projections – generally effective, especially the great animations – it’s very hard to have an horrific beast on stage that doesn’t look daft, but this was actually quite a creepy figure. The other animations seemed to fit well in its Edwardian feel; that they were slightly out-of-focus wasn’t a problem. I’m not convinced that the same out-of-focusness worked for the projections of an open book used the rest of the time. I spent too much time wondering whether this was deliberate so that people couldn’t actually read it during the play – or just out-of-focus. When one’s mind keeps wandering back to a part of the set, then there’s something not quite working somewhere.

The play itself, for the most part, did work. Peter Egan’s Holmes was suitably insufferable – striding and posing and saying unforgivable things to poor old Watson, to whom Phillip Franks gave some real depth. I truly felt for him; he was certainly much more than a mere sidekick in this interpretation, and the balance of the relationship between the pair was much more equal than in many versions. I really got the feeling that Holmes needed Watson, and a couple of the lines left Holmes quite vulnerable – not that that stopped him strutting around and driving everyone mad – as only Sherlock Holmes can.

The other three cast members, as is traditional, played all the other characters. All three gave sturdy performances, though it was never in any doubt who the leads were.

It’s directed by the same guy who brought us The Woman in Black, and there was at least one genuinely creepy moment in it. I wasn’t too sure about the way that sundry literary quotes were shoehorned into the script – they felt like they’d been added for brownie points only – and the ending was bizarre in the extreme; the last line a complete non-sequitur. On the whole, though, this is a stylish, assured production with the well-buffed polish of a show that has been touring for some time. An intriguing ‘control’ show, then, for

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Duchess Theatre, W1

Boy oh boy am I glad I wrote the bit above yesterday morning. I have just realised that seeing two productions of the same story on consecutive days may help basic plot details but in every other respect it’s a very silly idea. A good job, then, that this version of HotB is very silly itself.

I spent the whole of the first half trying to work out why they’d cast a Spanish actor as Holmes. It’s a brilliant decision, thought I, (he is extremely funny) but rather left-field. And if the Peter Egan production had only five actors, it was positively lavish in comparison to the three on stage in front of me here.

It took a little reading up at the interval to find that it’s been created by an established theatre group, Peepolykus, and that regulars would know these guys from previous shows they’ve done together.

It’s wonderfully inventive – has to be, as ‘large budget’ was probably not a phrase bandied about at rehearsals. But, as I was taught at college, constraints lead to creativity, and in this case seeing the nutty ways they got round what might have been problems for anyone else was part of the maniacal fun.

From the moment a splendid fellow in top hat and sideboards steps forward to a series of quite remarkably-produced sound effects, you know you are in the realm of the bizarre. I can’t say that it’s unseen on the West End – the superlative The 39 Steps, currently at the Criterion, which won an Olivier last month, probably paved the way for the go-ahead on this production, but when you have a merry tear running from your eye in the first few seconds of a show, you’re hardly going to complain that there are two silly spoofs in London just now.

Javier Marzan’s Holmes is completely barking mad. There’s no other way of describing it. He makes the most of his heavy Spanish accent, puffing on an enormous curly pipe and wearing a natty deerstalker and caped coat. When he’s “Holmes in disguise,” only the fabric changes, making him a grotty coach driver in deerstalker and cape, and a stinking old tramp in rabbit-skin deerstalker and cape. His “indoor” velvet deerstalker-combo is particularly fetching, and acts as a good sausage receptacle later on (no – you’ll just have to see it…)

Watson in this version is, unlike the sensitive soul portrayed in the Greenwich version, a gaping loon, the Laurel to Holmes’s Hardy. Together they pursue their crazy quarry to, well, a quarry. The “other” characters were fabulously bonkers stereotypes whose gags were seamlessly inserted into the show later on.

I particularly liked the bits where they realised the show was running a bit short (did this start at Edinburgh, I wonder, where all the shows last an hour?) and they tacked on some ‘extra scenes’ which worked superbly well.

Every scene layers on the silliness and, coupled with some clever tricks (one of which I still can’t work out how was done) and inventive performances (Javier Marzan in a frock and beard is worth the entrance price alone) it makes for one of the funniest nights I’ve experienced in some time. Well – since I saw The 39 Steps, actually.

I don’t think this quite eclipses The 39 Steps, so if you’re only going to see one crazed anarchical comedy this spring, see that, but my face ached by the end of this show and I heartily recommend it. Hurry up, it only lasts for 10 weeks, but if you go before 8th May all tickets are £ 20. And the other Hound, at Greenwich only lasts til Saturday, and is also well worth a viewing, so get your skates on…

Note to Greenwich Theatre – get these guys Peepoluykus at Greenwich – they’re fab. Oh – and as a non sequitur to match that of the Greenwich version of HotB, when are you going to get the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain back?

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